While Many Shy Away, Some Illegal Immigrants Brave California Wildfire to Sneak into the US

Elliot Spagat, AP, October 23, 2007

One of Southern California’s largest wildfires has frightened many illegal immigrants from hiking through a popular corridor to cross from Mexico even as the Border Patrol has withdrawn some agents.

Some consider the Border Patrol’s pullback an opportunity, but a three-hour drive through ash-covered hills Tuesday suggests that many others are staying put in Mexico.

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Road closures due to the fire meant migrants could not meet drivers, Mahler said. Typically, migrants pay about $1,500 (euro1,052) each to be guided through rugged canyons for hours, even days, and be picked up by someone at a roadside checkpoint for the drive to San Diego.

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About 50 migrants have surrendered to the Border Patrol since the fires began Sunday, fearing for their safety. One was seriously burned Monday when he and five others sought help from firefighters and they were all taken to a San Diego hospital, according to the Mexican consulate in San Diego. No deaths have been reported.

Some of the six migrants who were rescued by firefighters Monday told Mexican authorities that smugglers convinced them the Border Patrol would be distracted, said Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in San Diego.

“The smugglers see the opportunity,” Joe Mason, a Border Patrol field operations supervisor, said as his truck wound through the bald canyons. “They figure there’s a good chance that the Border Patrol’s not around.”

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About 200 of the 600 National Guard troops who normally help patrol California’s border with Mexico also were reassigned to assist with fires further north.

That left the steep hills on the border relatively unattended, and some illegal immigrants apparently took advantage. There was a trail of fresh footprints through one ash-blanketed canyon Tuesday.

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